New Kind of Christianity – response from a theologian

I met a theologian at a conference recently who passed on the following note (being presented here anonymously). It’s interesting from a number of angles, but especially in relation to today’s other post about not casting Greco-Roman culture in an all-or-nothing black-and-white light.

Greetings Brian,
How good it was to meet you in Boston. That first conversation over a box lunch in the “lobby” area just prior to the session was a good start to what I hope may be many conversations. I was also grateful to learn that you have been in contact with our mutual friend Mark Baker.
I told you when we first met that a friend of mine who is a well read businessman found your “A New Kind of Christianity” very refreshing and hopeful, but wondered whether pastors and Christian professors were reading your work, and what they thought of it. I told him of my own reading of some of your work and the widespread enthusiasm for much of your work among students and faculty whom I know.
At that time, and when I met you, I had not yet read “A New Kind of Christianity”, but now I have, and I want to tell you a few things that were very important and helpful for me, and some thoughts it stimulated.
1. Your re-framing of the overarching story line. Crucial and true to the story. It’s a significant recasting of the usual story line but because it is so deeply true to the biblical account it requires people to take a very hard look at it. Hopefully even if they quibble with you, the experience of looking for another overarching narrative already engages them in the texts in fresh ways. You also have a creative way of addressing the “progressive revelation” issue by making it more a group of contexts than a linear replacement of one revelation by another.
I wondered in this regard if you may have made the Greco-Roman narrative almost “un-redeemable”, despite some of your comments throughout the book that we have something to learn from it. Earlier generations of scholars did a lot of work on the differences between the Hebrew and Babylonian (etc) worldviews in relation to creation and other themes. They acknowledged a kind of cultural conversation that was going on behind the biblical texts. You provide a similar perspective on the Greco-Roman context, but it left me wondering, “What are the positive insights from those world views that we still see in “Christian DNA” and can celebrate? I ask that because if we want to engage creatively with cultures of India or China or Africa, we will need to have a hermeneutical attitude that blends appreciation and critique. Many Christians might be inclined to say that if we dismiss much of the Greek culture that was the vessel within which most of Christian theology and practice was framed and preserved, how much more should we be willing to dismiss other cultures that have not been significantly transformed by their engagement with Christianity.
2. Your metaphor about the constitution and the library. When I lived in the US for eight years and again when I traveled there for research during the past three months, I was often struck by the relationship between the way many people read the Constitution and the Bible. I thought of writing a short article about this. Then I read your much more extensive and insightful elaboration of that theme. Tremendously helpful. As part of this process of re-framing the Bible you may already have written more elsewhere about the interaction of the particular tradition of the Hebrew Bible with the neighbouring “wisdom” traditions. One of my colleagues … teaches a course on wisdom in the Bible, and he delights to show the significant interactions between the cultures of that region and then to raise questions about other wisdom traditions that we may encounter in our own lives. John Howard Yoder addressed this to some extent in his concept of middle axioms.
3. Your discussion of other faiths. This is my research and teaching area and I found your exposition of John 14:6 to be especially interesting and helpful. It’s important for us to be more clear about what question is being answered by a statement, and your contextualization of this text is a very good example. As some of my friends have said when someone claims that a specific text of the Bible “teaches” a particular “truth” “It’s true that the Bible teaches that, but this is not one of the places where it does so.”
In this regard your earlier discussion (in relation to “progressive revelation”) about people and cultures perhaps needing to go through a process of gradually “refined” understanding of God, parallel to what you observe in the Bible, this is a very fundamental understanding within the Hindu tradition, and is a reason why it accepts such a plurality of conceptions of the divine and so many variations in religious practice. It is related to the concepts of individual disposition (adhikara-bheda) and individual god (istadevata) and personalized mantras. Each person has a disposition that is unique and there is a manifestation of god and a sacred word that is suitable for that person. That person’s understanding may change, and they may be ready for another view (darsana – also the word for philosophy) of god, but there will always be one that is suitable. And reincarnation is nor just a succession of hopefully more advanced states of life, but also an opportunity for increasingly deep understandings of the divine.
Thomas Merton said something similar near the end of “Seven Storey Mountain” when he observed that he had initially gone into the European cathedrals for the wrong reasons (to admire the art and architecture). But then he said, no, not for the wrong reasons, because the artists and architects understood that what they were doing was providing a starting point for those who were not yet “capable of immediately understanding anything higher.”
4. Your diagram early in the book of the trajectory of an orientation reminded me of Paul Hiebert’s (mission anthropologist) writing about bounded sets and centered sets. Your diagram would represent a centered set approach. That can also be illustrated by lining up people (as in your very fine illustration of where you put Jesus in the line). Have a reference point (or person) with people at various distances from it, but facing in a variety of directions. Ask who is closer to the fixed point. Then ask each person to take three steps. Then ask the question again, and repeat once more if needed to make the point that “orientation toward” will be more important in the long term than initial “proximity to”.
Many thanks for the conversations in Boston and for this profoundly provocative and insightful book. I will recommend it and buy it for people.